We are pleased to present this interview with Galina Rylkova, author of Breaking Free from Death: The Art of Being a Successful Russian Writer.
Breaking Free from Death examines how Russian writers respond to the burden of living with anxieties about their creative outputs, and, ultimately, about their own inevitable finitude. What contributes to creative death are not just crippling diseases that make man defenseless in the face of death, and not just the arguably universal fear of death but, equally important, the innumerable impositions on the part of various outsiders. Many conflicts in the lives of Rylkova’s subjects arose not from their opposition to the existing political regimes but from their interactions with like-minded and supporting intellectuals, friends, and relatives. The book describes the lives and choices that concrete individuals and—by extrapolation—their literary characters must face in order to preserve their singularity and integrity while attempting to achieve fame, greatness, and success.
What is distinct about the way Russian writers respond to death and mortality in their work?
I would say that Russian writers feel themselves to be part of a bigger group, with all of its pressures, advantages and disadvantages—something that is more typical of European artists of the Renaissance, when painters willingly partook in immortalizing their contemporaries in their works. Writers such as Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak (who, while working on Poem without a Hero and Doctor Zhivago, respectively, opened up their creative laboratories to numerous outsiders, with their incessant requests, criticisms, and suggestions) are unthinkable anywhere in Western Europe or the United States. Philosophers, who tend to think about such fundamental issues as life and death, in Russia, were often either professional writers, such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Merezhkovsky, to name the very few, or literary critics, who used their writings as an outlet for expounding their philosophy (Merezhkovsky, Berdiaev, Lev Shestov, Mikhail Bakhtin, Semen Frank and many others). Russian writers often felt that they were lagging behind their Western counterparts, which was bound to increase their anxieties about their legacy. Add to this a good dose of political instability and uncertainty, multiplied by wars and revolutions, and their anxieties became extreme.
Conversely, are there universal ways in which creative personalities respond to death?
I imagine them fluctuating between two states—I can die now, I’ve done everything I wanted to achieve. No desires. No sadness. One feels completely at peace with oneself. The other extreme—will people forget me in seven years, seven months, or even days? (Chekhov was mesmerized by this number 7.) I am also saying in my book that one shouldn’t take any writer’s pronouncements literally, as many readers tend to do with Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, for example. I am more interested in what role the writing of this novella might have played in Tolstoy’s coping with his own anxieties. I think, first and foremost, it was a very personal work, similar in that sense to Chekhov’s The Seagull.
Do you think creative response to death has changed significantly in recent years with the advancement of medical care and the increasingly secular nature of Western society?
I don’t think creative response to death has changed significantly. Think of Joyce Carol Oates’s Wild Nights, in which she portrays the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway with harrowing precision, creating seething whirlpools of gloom and comic relief. Donna Tartt’s novels are all about death and its effect on people’s lives. Maybe we don’t have as many books of this kind as we would have liked to have these days when people are turning once again to art in general to guide them through the current hell of a pandemic. My friends and colleagues are re/reading Mann’s Magic Mountain, watching Visconti’s Death in Venice, quote profusely from Camus’s The Plague, etc. If anything, our current situation has forcefully reminded us that we are as naked in the face of death as we were before the advancement of medical care. Students of Tolstoy like to debate whether Tolstoy was truly afraid of death or not. Many would like to see him as a supremely death-defying person. Personally, I think that to stop fearing death requires a special effort. Before you stop doing something, you do that something for a while. I am interested in what happens in-between.
How do you imagine instructors will use this book in their courses? For what kinds of sources will this book serve as a useful text?
People are discussing developing courses about death and dying right now. Many students are coming to terms with the idea of their own mortality for the first time. They are scared. We have reached a turning point at which society is going to have to rethink its attitude to life and death. Death (in the form of the Coronavirus) has reminded about itself in a very stark way. I don’t believe we’re likely to quickly forget about it.
Galina Rylkova is Associate Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Florida. She is the author of The Archaeology of Anxiety: The Russian Silver Age and Its Legacy (2007). Her research interests include psychology of creative personality, biography, and Russian theater.
Breaking Free from Death is available now from Academic Studies Press. Pick up your copy here or from your favorite bookseller.